I can’t think of a better way to start off a new ride season than with a ride planned right away. Dashing Through the Trails is a brand-new ride for Arizona and the Southwest Region, held at the Estrella Mountain Regional Park in Phoenix, managed by Effee Conner and her family.
I have very fond memories of Estrella — while it’s not close enough to really be considered my “home” trails, I’ve done several NATRC rides there, and have used it for training grounds over the years, enough to at least have a familiarity with the trails.
I was able to partner up once again with Flash, which is always the icing on the ride cake whenever I get to ride him. He’s one of my favorite catch rides, I adore his opinionated self, and he’s given me the greatest gift of all — the return of my confidence and competence in the saddle. For that alone, he will forever have a place in my heart, and I am so grateful to Troy and Claire Eckard for sharing him with me on a regular basis.
Because Estrella is only an hour away from me, I was able to delay my packing until Friday morning (much to the happiness of the dogs, who pout and sulk whenever the bags come out and the stacks of ride clothes start forming), and not have to leave the house until late morning for a noon-time arrival.
The weather was supposed to be clear for the weekend, but it was raining when I woke up Friday morning, and continued with on and off clouds and then clearing for the remainder of the morning. Driving over to Estrella, all I could see were the mountains barely visible through the layers of clouds that kept persistently gathering around them. The ominous-looking storm cell just west of where I was heading wasn’t exactly an encouraging sight, either. I just kept reminding myself that ride day was supposed to be clear, and I had packed extra clothes and extra jackets just in case. (Advantage of a local ride I can drive to and use my truck as extra storage — don’t have to try to “pack light.”)
Fortunately, the only rain that materialized was about a dozen drops, and then the clouds cleared up for the rest of the afternoon. Troy arrived with the boys early afternoon, and it was quick work of getting camp set up and checking in.
Vetting in, on the other hand? That didn’t exactly go according to plan…
There was a window of opportunity where there was virtually no one in the vet line, so we quickly scuttled the boys over to go vet in. Flash was feeling kind of full of himself, since we hadn’t pre-ridden yet, and when we went to trot-out, he got distracted, temporarily forgot how many legs he had, and did some kind of fancy stumble-catch-flail moment. The vet didn’t love how he trotted out after that display — there was something “funky” in how he was moving — so she held our card and wanted to re-check us a bit later to see if we would be able to start.
Back at the trailer, we found the culprit — clipped heel bulb. We washed it off, then just gave him some time to chill while waiting for the vet line to go get a bit less busy.
On the second go-round, I kept his enthusiasm well under wraps (I’ve ridden a number of horses you have to really pump up to have them show well in hand…he is the exact opposite and needs no extra encouragement, and I have to remember that I do not need to all-out sprint with this guy), and we were given the all clear to start.
Whew, crisis averted. As a precaution, we cushioned and vet-wrapped the area, and put a bell boot on to help secure the wrap as well as provide an extra layer of protection from any rocks that might hit the area and make it sore.
After that, we were able to tack up and go out for a pre-ride for an hour or so. Flash gave me a few of his “I had a day off, so I’m going to be a dork” shenanigans, mostly in the form of “porpoise leaping” the “up” part of some down-and-up gulleys, but he’s so smooth and easy to stay with, it honestly just makes me laugh as I nudge him forward and remind him that forward, not up, is the ride plan. But this is why we pre-ride…so ride day itself will involve a limited number of antics.
Once we got back to camp, it was quick work to pack up a crew bag with everything we would need for the out vet check — a one-hour hold at 23 miles, and then a pulse-and-go at 40 miles — before the ride dinner and meeting. Hot spaghetti-n-meatballs tasted delicious as the sun went down, the wind picked up, and the temperatures dropped. (Granted, winter in the Valley means dropped “into the 40’s,” but for this solar-powered desert rat, that’s cold.)
Post-briefing, there was time for a bit of evening socializing before crawling off to bed to be up early for a 6:30 start (which means starting in the dark this time of year). I was actually even sleeping pretty well (for me, the night before a ride) until Flash made one last “do I really hafta go ride in the morning?” self-sabotage attempt that resulted in him managing to break his Hi-Tie line. No clue what he did, if he got caught or tangled on something, or what…but all body parts were intact, no blood, no scuffs, and appeared fully sound and functional…so he still wasn’t getting out of work that easy. Ah, well…it seems like there has to be at least one “bail out of bed in the middle of the night because of suspicious noises” wake-up call every year, and I was due for one. Good reminder, too, that I need to start bringing “fast to slip on” shoes/boots for nighttime, since fumbling around with shoelaces took way too much time.
I was kind of shocked I was able to go back to sleep after that, but I did, and clocked a few more hours before the alarm went off at 4:30. Early, yes, but I’ve found I do much better with being able to ease into the morning than being short on time and stressing. (I can actually eat breakfast when I have a solid 15 minutes to sit, uninterrupted, and slowly work my way through a cup of oatmeal, versus trying to gobble food on the go.)
One thing I’ve gotten much, much faster about in the last couple years is my morning tacking up routine. I used to be pretty slow, but somewhere along the way, I learned the art of the fast morning tack-up. Definitely helps to have everything ready to go the evening before — bottles filled and in the saddle, snacked packed, etc — so that it’s an easy enough thing to pull blankets, toss pad + saddle in place, fasten breastcollar, take a few minutes to convince Flash he does have to wear a bridle, then mount up and go. It also helps that this was my fourth ride with Flash, so I’ve been able to develop a bit of a routine with him and know generally what to expect and how much time to allot.
6:30, the trail was open, and since we had pre-ridden the start the day before and knew that it had some rocky sections, we just took our time and moseyed (as much as two fit, forward endurance horses will ever mosey) our way out.
Cresting the first rise out of camp, it was the most incredible sight. The rain the day before had created enough lingering moisture in the desert to produce an incredible overnight mist/fog layer that was blanketing the entire Valley, and creeping up into the mountains. From the ride, looking out towards the trail we would be traversing, the sun was just starting to lighten the horizon, everything was blanketed in a soft fog layer, early morning sunrise colors were starting to appear…
It was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever experienced on trail. I wish I could have captured it on camera, because it looked like something out of a fantasy epic (for any of my fellow Lord of the Rings fans out there, think Middle Earth, but with saguaros)…but at the same time, no quick iPhone photo snapped on the back of a dancing horse could possibly do justice to that sight. So it remains embedded in my brain, another beautiful, amazing, personal moment on the endurance trail.
The first 9 miles were a loop on one of the competitive track loops. We had been warned ahead of time that it was probably the overall rockiest section of the whole day, so we took our time and took it really easy over any of the rocky sections.
Towards the end of the loop, ride photographers Sue and John Kordish were waiting, and got some amazing ride photos.
Flash is so photogenic, and he totally shows off for the camera. The “all four off the floor” moment above was after Troy told me, “put him in the lead and let him move out a bit.” Pretty sure that’s the point on my GPS where the speed pegged at 11mph. And the other photos? I love how soft and engaged he is. Collected, listening to me, and posing for the camera at the same time. And me? Well, I didn’t have to fake that smile.
Coming off the “mini loop” of the competitive track, we passed right through camp on the way to the next trail, so I took advantage of swinging by the rig to go to the bathroom, drop a jacket off, and grab a quick drink/snack on-the-go while the boys grabbed a few bites of hay at the trailer before we continued on.
As promised, the trail after the competitive track was much smoother, and we were able to start picking up the pace and maintain it more consistently.
This section of the trail was totally new to me — a connector trail that made it possible to go between the competitive track area and the rest of the park. It was about 3 miles of mostly single-track, with a few ins-and-outs through small gullies and ditches, but it flowed really well and was a really fun section.
The trails at Estrella are a very “active” ride — they twist and turn, go up and down, have rocks, cactus to avoid — not much “down” time where you can just sit back and easily cruise, because on the smooth sections, you’re taking advantage of them and picking up the pace. But I also find those kinds of trails to be very interesting and engaging, and it definitely keeps my attention.
Continuing through the main park, we had all of the above…paying attention to where we could move out, dialing it back when we couldn’t. Going through one longer, smooth section of wide single track, I was able to do my first extended canter with Flash, and it was marvelous. He’s like riding a war horse — strong, collected, powerful canter that you’re pretty sure is some kind of throwback to a battle charge way back in his distant ancestry.
Our 1-hour vet hold was at 23 miles, and the boys were pulsed down as soon we arrived. There was a short line for the vet at that point, so it was easier to settled them in with some food first for a bit, and then take them over to vet (36/40 CRI, we’ll take it).
Although the boys try to use each other as itching posts, neither of them really tries too hard to wander away, so I could actually sit down during an away check without running constant vigilance on a constantly-trying-to-sneak-away-pony.
Sometimes holds go by really fast, and other times, I’m twiddling my thumbs…in this case, it was well-timed in that I got everything done, had time to eat, sit down for a bit, and still be at the out timer with a minute to spare.
Out onto loop 2, which was 17 miles and would bring us right back into the vet check area for a pulse-n-go check. There was definitely some rocky, slow-going sections, especially early on in the loop, but it was countered by a several mile section of a long, straightaway, not-too-deep, sandy wash. The kind of trail that just begs for a canter…so we did.
Chalk that one up to another Perfect Endurance Moment.
Historically, I am not brave, especially when it comes to cantering. It’s the gait I feel the least secure in, that if the horse decides to shy, or start bucking, I’ve got a greater chance of coming off. But Flash’s forwardness, bravery, and business-like attitude makes me brave. He’s not looking for things to shy at, or reasons/excuses to spook. He just wants to go forward and get down the trail…and that kind of boldness directly feeds back to me and allows me to do something like fearlessly canter a couple of miles across the desert, with the only thoughts in my head being the rhythmic sound of his hooves pounding the sand, the wind whistling past my ears, his steady snorting in sync with his hoofbeats. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been that in tune with a horse on the trail, and they’re moments I won’t ever forget.
All too soon, we ran out of beautiful trail, and it was back to the strategically-walk-and-trot approach…although as the ride continued on, we found our definition of what was “acceptable for trotting” to be a little less stringent than it had been earlier in the day, if we wanted to be able to make time and meet our goal of “finish in daylight.”
Looping back around, the last mile into the vet check was a large gravel road, perfect for moving out…and we made a bit of a strategic error. We trotted the whole way into the check, and kind of forgot it was a pulse down, not just a trot-by, so the boys came in a little high, and it took a few minutes to drop to parameters before we were cleared to go. Ah, well, it gave them a few minutes to eat some hay while we were waiting, and for me to fill bottles and grab a quick snack, so as soon as they were pulsed down, we were on our way again.
Loop 3 was basically a repeat of loop 2, with some sections cut off and replaced with alternate trails, and we would then head back into camp on the same connector trail we had taken into the park in the morning.
Flash was a complete angel for this third loop, especially when one of my ankles started pitching a screaming fit about 5 or 6 miles from the finish whenever we trotted (something about how the stirrup fender was torquing my leg and overly stretching the outside part of my ankle…but I have some ideas for how to address that the next time). That horse…oh, man. So many gold stars to him. He completely tolerated the fact I was somewhat off-balance, riding with more weight on my “good” side, and the vibe I got from him was “just hang on up there, I’ll get you home.” The worst was trying to trot down any slight downhill, since I had to brace more and put more weight on my ankles/feet to do that, and those last few miles, he seemed to be doing whatever he could to make sure he wasn’t pulling on me, or doing anything that made me have to brace any harder.
The last couple miles from camp, we just walked them in. It was so quiet out there — no riders behind us, no one close in front — it was like we had the desert all to ourselves. And despite wanting to cut my ankle off (although it was fine when we were walking, and I could just drop my foot out of the stirrup), there was a part of me that didn’t want such a magical, amazing ride to end.
We strolled the boys into camp, with Flash outwalking Rymoni by a head to come in 6th and 7th. I think our ride time is somewhere around 9:40ish…haven’t seen the official AERC results published yet, but that’s what I have on my GPS, and I turned it off a couple minutes after we were in.
That was a challenging, butt-kicker of a ride, and ponies and riders were all pretty whipped at the end. But we got it done, it was a heck of a way to start the season, and Troy reported that the boys looked great the following day. Can’t ask for more than that.
And that ride also put me at the milestone for my next mileage patch — 750 endurance miles. Seems like an excellent way to start the season!
Dashing Through the Trails was a ton of fun — very well-managed, true mileage, and a definite “endurance” test. I don’t do this sport because it’s easy…I do it because it’s a challenge, because success isn’t guaranteed, because it’s always a learning experience, and because, for me, it is an incredible ground for creating an undefinable bond between horse and rider.
Finally, I have to thank Troy and Claire again — for sharing Flash and for mentoring me both on the trail and in the sport. You guys are a part of my endurance family, and I’m so grateful our paths crossed.